(Bloomberg View) -- Students and activists are preparing what will almost certainly be the nation’s largest mass demonstration against gun violence -- and the shoddy laws that fuel it -- on March 24. The March for Our Lives is the bitter fruit of one school massacre too many, the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Waves of outrage follow every gun massacre. But this wave has been effectively channeled, with teen survivors proving canny leaders in shaping what could become a generational cause.
The NRA is acutely aware of the precariousness of the moment. “We need to stop dangerous people before they act,” says NRA lobbyist Chris Cox in a video released last week. He goes on to announce support for the creation of risk protection orders, the product of “red flag” laws such as one just passed in the ordinarily gun-crazy state of Florida.
Several states already have such laws, which enable family members, authorities or other defined individuals or institutions to petition a court for an order to remove guns from someone who is deemed a threat to self or others.
Notably, Cox doesn’t support a federal law to this effect. Even more notably, he doesn’t actually support state laws either.
California has an especially robust set of restrictions that includes a state program to identify prohibited persons -- the Armed Prohibited Persons System -- and a law enforcement task force to seize guns from them. Here’s how the state attorney general describes it:
The State of California is the first and only state in the nation to have established an automated system for tracking firearm owners who fall into a prohibited status. The APPS database works to identify individuals who previously procured firearms but later became barred from legally owning them because they were convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, placed under a domestic violence or other restraining order, or suffer from serious mental illness.
Essentially, California has decided that if someone is barred from purchasing firearms because of a history of crime or mental illness, they should turn in any guns they already own. If they don’t, the guns should be taken by the state. Otherwise, in what sense are these individuals "prohibited" from owning guns?
The NRA hates California's system. The group devoted another of its videos to denouncing the program, featuring a nurse and her husband who are portrayed as victims of a brutal regime trampling their rights. The state program has “nothing to do with hard-core criminals or gang members or murderers,” says a commentator in the video.
The video is only one part of a multi-pronged assault on APPS. The NRA website links to a memo that states: “The media and Attorney General are portraying these prohibited persons as violent criminals,” while in reality innocent people are caught up in the gun-confiscation regime and “most of the bad guys” are not.
As it happens, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the latest round of arrests and confiscations in the APPS program on March 13. Here’s part of the press release:
Timothy Pope, from Norwalk, was arrested on February 28. Pope is named in the APPS database due to a felony conviction for possessing a destructive device. Upon his arrest, DOJ agents searched his residence and seized one handgun, one shotgun, three assault weapons and 6,500 rounds of ammunition. Two of the assault weapons were “ghost guns;” one was a short-barrel rifle; and the third was equipped with a “bump stock."
“Ghost guns” are guns without serial numbers, which make them harder for law enforcement to trace. The press release also included news of two other men who had had their guns confiscated under the program after they were arrested attempting to buy three grenade launchers. All told, the state has removed 18,000 firearms from persons prohibited under California law from possessing them.
Because the task force deals with some serous criminals, it’s perhaps poorly tailored to deal with those who aren’t serious criminals. The nurse and her husband in the NRA video seem like nice people. We learn only in passing why they were subject to the law. She had gone to a hospital at the request of her doctor. “I went in there voluntarily, and they then put me in involuntary,” she states. “That’s what started it.”
Being involuntarily committed rightly put her on the prohibited persons list. The state acted on the change in her status by taking her guns. To do otherwise would render the law moot.
When on the defensive, as it surely is now, the NRA sometimes concedes a rhetorical point. But as its sustained attack on California’s APPS program shows, the NRA doesn’t actually support state action to restrict access to guns by criminals or the mentally ill. An NRA spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, told USA Today that none of the red flag laws adopted or under consideration meet its rigorous standards. “None of the pieces of legislation that have been introduced have included adequate due process so we’ve opposed them,” she said.
If it fails to prevent further "red flag" laws, the fallback for the NRA will be to lobby to make such laws less effective. Then the group will try to sabotage implementation. That’s what happened as background checks became the checkered law of the land. The private-sale loophole makes the law significantly less effective. Other dilutions, such as the three-day limit on reviews, put thousands of guns in the hands of people whom the law intended to restrict, including Dylann Roof, the white racist who in 2015 murdered nine black worshipers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Yet the gun group's verbal nod to red flag laws is still significant, even if it’s most likely fraudulent. Anytime the NRA is forced to admit that the world is more complex than its cartoon offerings of good guys and evil criminals, it’s proof that the tide is rolling against it. That’s when progress is made. Keep it up, kids.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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